Madiba was no sell-out
As we celebrate Nelson Mandela’s centenary during Mandela Month we ought to reflect on his legacy and his values .
Nowadays, and especially among young people, it has become somewhat fashionable to castigate our former president, Nelson Mandela, and label him a sell-out.
Those who project themselves as revolutionaries tell us Mandela was not a revolutionary and in fact sold out by negotiating a settlement with the apartheid government, which led to the 1994 transition to democracy. When one listens carefully to their accusation, it has a lot to do with the challenges that South Africa still faces today.
Inequality, poverty, unemployment, landlessness, among others, are still features that define democratic South Africa. Their persistent presence is to Madiba’s critics – most of them peacetime revolutionaries, in my view – evidence that he negotiated a flawed deal. When the dividends of our new dispensation do not manifest to some within our society, indeed the temptation to criticise the architects of our democracy may be compelling.
In this birth month of Madiba, it may be opportune to revisit the role he played and assess whether the posthumous criticism he is subjected to is fair. Not that Mandela would be scandalized about the idea of being criticized. He knew he had feet of clay and was no saint.
On his first public address after he left prison, Mandela stated: “I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people.” On another occasion he said: “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” But even so, it is important to subject whatever criticism of the man to scrutiny.
Judging Mandela’s legacy by the 1994 negotiated settlement is limiting. His life did not start then. His biography reveals that he was a member of the abaThembu royal household and was being groomed to be a chief. He left home as a young man fleeing from or rebelling against tradition. For the suffering he was to later endure, Mandela could have gone back to his village and lived a relatively peaceful and comfortable life. But he had chosen the path of sacrifice.
We also know from history that in August 1952, Mandela had opened his own law firm. A few months later, he invited Oliver Tambo to join him in the establishment of the first law firm in the country to be run by black partners. The firm was a thriving practice as it was inundated with clients seeking redress from acts of the oppressive apartheid regime. The firm was subsequently closed down as Mandela faced charges of treason and Tambo fled the country.
Again the path of sacrifice took precedence. Mandela could have easily concentrated on building his law firm and today it would be part of the sky-rise legal firms that dot Sandton’s landscape. Instead, he did, in my mind, the most revolutionary thing: sacrificed a successful legal career for the freedom of his people.
We also know that Mandela had set up the ANC's' armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, in 1961 after he had lost hope that passive and non-violent resistance to the apartheid government would bear fruit. History and Mandela’s own diaries reveal that in 1962 he received military training from the Algerian National Liberation Front at bases of the latter across the border in Morocco. Yet, peacetime revolutionaries who themselves have never handled a pistol say he was not a revolutionary and label him a sell-out.
Fast forward to the Rivonia trial and the speech he gave while in the dock and you have the penultimate revolutionary. In that famous speech, he said: “During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this Struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
The apartheid judiciary did not send him to the gallows, but for his convictions he was sent to prison for 27 years of his life. And we have people calling him a sell-out. It is outrageous.
The 1994 political settlement was not perfect, but Mandela and his generation accomplished their historical mission: political liberation of black people in South Africa. But to attribute exclusively to him the shortcomings of the 1994 political settlement is too simplistic and disingenuous. Codesa, the talks that delivered our new dispensation, was a multiparty exercise. Also, the ANC went to the talks as a collective and not as Mandela.
Nelson Mandela was much more than a leader of the majority. Nelson Mandela was a nation-builder. Nelson Mandela gained the respect of even his enemies. He embodied a value system that placed the humanity of others at the forefront of his world view. He treated others with dignity and respect, and so turned enemies into allies and critics into supporters. By committing himself to the ideal of a non-racist, non-sexist, free South Africa, Mandela transcended the confines of race, tribe or creed and became a global icon of peace and reconciliation. His humility enabled him to serve the national interest, beyond the narrow interests of his family, clan or political in-group. Mandela’s detractors fail to understand the power of his forgiveness, that it was not a show of weakness but of his magnanimity. It revealed his greatness.
The man laid the foundation and told us before he transitioned into eternity and told us that it was now in our hands. For the things we have failed to achieve or resolve over the last 24 years, we have ourselves to blame, not Madiba. What the example of Madiba challenges us to do is to introspect about our own willingness to sacrifice. It calls us to question the values that we espouse and ask ourselves if we can live up to the measure of the man who turned a divided country into a Rainbow Nation.
Pastor Ray Mccauley is the president of the Rhema Family Churches and co-chairperson of the National Religous Leaders Council